Primitivo and zinfandel were once thought to be different varieties, but what was one of the more intensive grapevine detective hunts eventually provided evidence for a clear match and a link to Croatia. In Australia, our near 50-year history with the grape has seen it take up a modest but meaningful presence.
Also known as
Zinfandel and primitivo are the principal names for the grape, though in Croatia, the grape is called crljenak kaštelanski and tribidrag. However, no-one seems to be in a hurry to adopt those synonyms here.
What primitivo/zinfandel tastes like
Given the variable ripeness that can occur in primitivo/zinfandel bunches, the flavour spectrum will extend from lusciously ripe forest berries and black cherries to somewhat sour ones, with black and brown spices and some herbal notes. Italian version will be less obviously rich, with dried fruits, tarry, meaty notes and rugged tannins.
Vineyard & winemaking
Primitivo/zinfandel is a grape that readily achieves high sugar levels on the vine, translating to wines high in alcohol. However, it is also prone to variable ripening in the bunches, which means that there are often some very ripe berries and greener ones, meaning that even the bigger wines can have a little more acid and freshness than might otherwise be expected. The grape is typically made into dry, tannic red wine, but it can also make fine rosé and is made into sweet wines in Puglia, Italy. In the US, along with being blended and bottled solo for reds, it is made into a vastly popular commercial style of sweet rosé, called white zinfandel.
Where is primitivo/zinfandel grown?
Zinfandel has an unusual history, with it being regarded as an American grape (though not native, as local species are from a different genus) for a long time, with its precise origins a little unclear, but it seems to have been originally sourced from an Austrian nursery in the early 19th century. Then, it was thought to be a Hungarian grape, but records were muddied and eventually the spanner of Prohibition was thrown in the works. It was rediscovered and emerged as essentially a grape exclusive to America, principally California. It was often a component in field blends along with varieties like grenache, durif, mourvèdre and carignan, and a large domestic audience was later developed for both powerfully ripe reds and a sweet rosé (though labelled “white”) version. Similarities with one of Southern Italy’s most important grapes, Puglia’s primitivo, led to the belief that they were one and the same, and it was eventually proven that they were different clones of the same grape, crljenak kaštelanski, from the Dalmatian Coast, Croatia. In Puglia, it is the second most planted variety, behind sangiovese, but it is the region’s most emblematic grape. Some 96 per cent of Italy’s plantings are in the region, and the powerful and appealing rustic wines that come from the grape are synonymous with Puglian wine. In California, Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards led the charge for raising the grape’s profile, making many site-differentiated bottlings.
Primitivo/zinfandel around the world
Today, California and Puglia are still the major players, with primitivo/zinfandel not widely planted around the world, while Croatia makes the grape under a couple of different names and principally in blends. Since the link between primitivo/zinfandel was proven, there has been an increased interest in the grape in Croatia, with varietal bottlings now increasingly common.
Primitivo/zinfandel in Australia
Australia has a little history in Australia, with Margaret River’s Cape Mentelle planting the grape in 1974, many followed suit, though always in discreet amounts. McLaren Vale’s Kangarilla Road become somewhat a leader of the movement, making a powerful style from the grape, as did Jo Irvine from Irvine and Lévrier in the Barossa. Jaysen Collins of Massena has taken that baton, but dissatisfied with the results of the clonal material out of UC Davis, he sourced material from Puglia, which he planted in South Moppa in the Barossa Valley for his Massena label. His expression is powerful, but far from the explosively rich examples that can be common. Another notable maker is Dudley Brown of McLaren Vale’s Inkwell. An American, Brown opts to call his primitivo, and makes it in a more elegant style with relatively modest alcohol for the variety.
Photo of primitivo/zinfandel grapes seen here, courtesy of Cape Mentelle vineyard.
Some of the best Australian primitivo/zinfandel